Theatre Royal Haymarket
Two lions of the British stage and screen are currently playing Samuel Beckett’s tramps on London’s West End, said Quentin Letts in the London Daily Mail. Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart star in Sean Mathias’ “sometimes inventive, often entertaining” take on Beckett’s masterwork. Though this production is bound to be remembered as “the famous McKellen-Stewart Godot,” Mathias takes steps to distinguish his own vision. Notably, he’s taken “one of 20th-century theater’s oddest, most depressing plays and milked it for laughs.” His method emphasizes the deeply funny elements of the play that most productions overlook. Still, I wish there were more of the “gut-whacking, nihilistic” moments Beckett fans know and love.
Stewart and McKellen are “just about everything we could expect Vladimir and Estragon to be,” said Benedict Nightingale in the London Times. These are two “superb classic actors” who deliver performances “at once subtle and commanding, touching and funny, vulnerable and dignified.” The co-stars of the X-Men films have a long shared working history, and that familiarity makes the bond between the characters instantly believable. Stewart plays Vladimir as a kindly intellectual “with a deep melancholy beneath his sweetness.” McKellen’s Estragon is a doleful, lugubrious tramp who takes “dour relish in his misery.” As a duo, “they’re moving, they’re inventive, they’re—well, excellent.”
Still, this production comes “perilously close” to turning Godot into “a feel-good comedy,” said Charles Spencer in the London Daily Telegraph. This is a bleak piece, in which Vladimir and Estragon plumb the depths of existential despair. They even consider hanging themselves from the play’s famous solitary tree. Yet at every turn here, we’re inundated with “sight gags, comic sound effects,” and “well-rehearsed patter routines.” Even still, Beckett’s grim vision shines through, as when Stewart nails the delivery of some of the play’s most chilling lines, describing birth: “Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps ... The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener.” More moments like that and this would have been “a great Godot rather than a merely entertaining one.”